Board Certified Sport Dietitian, Master of Science in Exercise Physiology, 2017 IM CHOO Amateur Female Champion, 12x Ironman finisher including 4x IM Kona finisher, Triathlon Coach, 25-year Vegetarian, Writer/Speaker
"One of the most important functions of muscles and tendons in running is to store energy. Like a pogo stick, your body can store energy from impact and then release it to propel your body forward. As such, a large portion of your propulsive energy actually comes from the energy stored in your legs from impact previously made with the ground. This is why you can leap higher and longer if you do a “countermovement” before jumping, like swiftly bending your knees, which allows you to reach much higher into the air than slowly bending your knees.
While this “stretch-shortening cycle” has been known about for some time, standardized methods of training this reflex are fairly new. Improvements in your muscles’ ability to elastically store energy have obvious implications for runners, as more stored energy means you can maintain a given pace using less overall energy. In short, your efficiency would improve.
Plyometrics are exercises that aim to develop strength and speed by conditioning the neuromuscular and elastic characteristics of the muscle.The main objective of plyometric training for runners is to produce greater power by training the muscles to contract more quickly and forcefully from an actively pre-stretched position." - source
It's easy to understand the benefits of plyometrics and many athletes will discuss the need to strength train in a cardio-focused training plan. But if your ultimate goal is to be a fast and strong runner, triathlete, swimmer or cyclist, what's the best strategy for incorporating strength training into your periodized training plan so that you don't compromise your energy/time for your primary sport?
Well, the first part is actually making time to strength train and to be consistent with it on a weekly basis. The second part is knowing how to periodize your strength training with your cardio. The third part is making sure you keep good form and progress slowly as your two top priorities when you strength train. You wouldn't run 20 miles after 3 weeks of starting your marathon training plan so why do plyometrics when you haven't yet mastered standing on one leg while moving your arms back and forth?
As athletes, it's so easy to get so caught up in the end result that we often get stuck into the mentality that the miles/hours we put into training are the only way to feel physically prepared for our upcoming event. But we all know that improving fitness and feeling race ready is much more than just putting in the miles and hours for your respected sport. Strength training improves performance and there is no denying this concept. You can swim, bike and run as much as you want, for hours and hours every day but strength training can improve your speed, power and endurance and the gains are often quick to receive without as much time needed for big results.
I believe that the biggest reason that athletes do not strength train is that it takes up time and the athlete/coach doesn't feel it is necessary. Funny because athletes make the time to train 10+ hours a week and talk about being "strong" as it relates to improved fitness but can't squeeze in 90 minutes a week of strength training.
Another reason why I believe athletes don't strength train is because it is not fun or perhaps the knowledge isn't there how to strength train as a triathlete or runner or swimmer or cyclist. I realize there is no endorphin high when lifting weights and that can make strength training feel like a waste of time.
In my perfect world, all athletes and fitness enthusiasts would strength train - yes, I find it that important.
It's so important that I want you understand that strength training is more than being strong just for the fact of being strong. We strength train to improve the brain-muscle connection (or neuromuscular pathway) because that is how we produce movements. So many of the "functional" strength exercises that may seem so super simple and boring are quite imperative to "turning on" specific muscles to fire more effectively. For example, if you have ever been told that your glutes aren't working/firing or are "dead" it's not that your glutes aren't working (or else you would not be standing) but they are not receiving the correct signals to support the given exercise like in running or cycling. Just think about how you feel after you warm-up or after the first few miles in a race compared to before you start - I'm sure you would agree that a warm-up or dynamic exercises can help you become less stiff and that is kinda similar to what strength training can do for your body - you are simply helping the muscles wake up and work better.
Think about the concept - just like a child learning how to ski for the first time, there are specific movements that are new and unfamiliar but also movements that require extreme balance and control. Also for any new skill, we must have the right strength to continue progressing our skills. We can certainly just swim, bike and run more to get faster and stronger but eventually, a limit will be reached when you have no more time or energy to devote to getting stronger and faster and you may find yourself pushing so hard to improve that you get injured. This is why we must make sure we are taking the time to strength train so that the brains learns how to connect with the muscles in a way that produces efficient, powerful and fatigue-resistant movements.
I highly suggest starting slow with your strength training. Just like anything that requires skills (learning how to swim, ride a bike, ski, play tennis, etc.), if you skip over steps, you will regret lacking patience down the road. Just like building a house, if you want a strong foundation, you have to follow a well-designed blue print and follow the right steps to build it slowly. Strength training is a key component in your athlete development. Karel and I often do strength before our cardio workouts such as doing a 30 min strength or plyo session before an EZ form focused run or doing 10-20 minutes of glute/core/hip strength before a swim or doing 5 min of foam rolling + hip mobility before a bike workout. Sometimes we will do our cardio workout in the morning (swim, bike or run) and then do our strength session in the evening as our second workout of the day (instead of another swim, bike or run workout). We often do strength before a swim workout and a few times we will do strength after we swim since it is convenient to strength train where we swim. But regardless of when we strength train, we are not just strength training because we see "strength" on our workout plan. It is part of the entire weekly focus of training. When we perform strength around a cardio workout, we see the workout as a whole (example strength + run or swim + strength or bike AM, strength PM) rather than just squeezing in a few exercises here or there and call it a completed strength session. The strength training is very specific has a purpose in our plan and the preceding or former cardio workout is designed to compliment the strength session (and vice versa).
This may all sounds confusing but the most important thing to remember is that strength training should enhance your cardio routine. To learn more, I highly recommend reading The Well-Built Triathlete by Coach Matt Dixon as he does a fantastic job explaining strength training in a cardio focused routine (among many other great topics that he discusses that will help you build great performances).
So how should you periodize your strength trainingwith your cardio training? Here's how we do it at Trimarni Coaching and Nutrition.
First we start with our transition or foundation training which can be found in our 8-week transition plan. Many of the cardio workouts in our foundation phase are also strength focused (ex. heavy gear work on the bike, band and paddle work in the pool and hill work for the run) in addition to specific isolated and simple, neuromuscular-focused strength workouts.
Exercises include: Step-ups, marching, bridge w/ alternating legs, stability ball work and dynamic warm-ups.
Next we progress our athletes to endurance/power based strength. We make exercises more complex and explosive knowing that our athletes have put in a good 8-weeks of basic movements to help the brain/muscle/nerve relationship for more fluid movements.
Exercises include: squat jumps with bar, single leg deadlifts, push-ups, medicine and stability ball work and a series of basic plyometrics.
After 8+10-12 weeks of progressing with strength, our athletes are super strong and no longer feel as if strength is taking away from their cardio fitness but instead, they understand (and can see) it is clearly enhancing their cardio fitness. So, essentially it is much easier for our athletes to continue with strength through their peak training and want to do it. Additionally, since strength was periodized with their training, we know they advanced slowly so the risk of injury goes down so long as the athlete is continuing to train smart and does not mix intensity and volume and strength together, within a workout (in our training plans, we make sure our athletes get stronger before they get faster and then they go longer).
We are currently finishing up the videos of our race specific phase of strength training for our athletes. All of our pre-built plans include the exercises that we and our athletes do in the first two phases of strength training (foundation and endurance/power).
Here are two advanced strength exercises in our race specific phase of strength training: Advanced plyometric circuit
Other race-specific exercises include: series of glute/hip warm-up exercises for every workout, medicine ball squats, single arm weight press, squat jump with bar and overhead lift, bench jumps, plank clams, wall squat with medicine ball overhead lift, pull-ups and single leg lunges with weight.
Oh, and the best part about our strength training is that our athletes do not have to belong to a fancy gym because we include no machines in our functional strength routine. We do require the use of weights, weight bars, kettle bells, medicine balls, bars and steps but we provide options in the case that our athletes do not have all of these options. Simply put, all our Trimarni athletes (of all levels) do strength training - at least 3 times per week.
If you have any questions about strength training in your periodized training plan, just send me an email and we can set up a consultation to help you get stronger so you can take your fitness to that next level.
Have fun getting stronger before you get faster before you go longer!
For more informative strength videos, check out my web-based PT Chris Johnson HERE who has helped me tremendously with my hip/glute strength and helping me "turn" on my glutes.